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How Often Do You Wash Your Pet’s Food Bowl?

Chances are it’s less frequently than the FDA recommends. And, yes, they do have safety guidelines


spinner image Close up of dog eating food from a red bowl
Sally Anscombe/Getty Images

Although it seems second nature to wash your plate between meals, the same isn’t true for that doggy dish, according to veterinary nutritionists at North Carolina State University.

More than 75 percent of dog owners aren’t following three simple Food and Drug Administration safety guidelines to protect their pets against foodborne illness — washing their own hands before handling pet food, serving food in a clean bowl and using a clean food scoop, according to a study appearing in the journal PLOS ONE.

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“Pet owners should know that pet food bowls can harbor bacteria and that recommendations exist for minimizing that risk,” Emily Luisana, a veterinary nutritionist at Friendship Animal Hospital, said in a statement.

Luisana and her colleagues at NC State, where she completed her residency, decided to study how people handle and store their pet food after conversations revealed that their own approaches differed — and that there actually were FDA guidelines, although not as comprehensive as those for handling and storing human food. “We realized that, when it came to our own pets, we all had different pet food storage and hygiene practices,” she said.

Beyond the dog dish

While you are in a cleaning mood, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests you consider other pet-related items that may need a scrubbing, including bedding and toys. A general rule of thumb is to treat them no differently than if the items belonged to your children (or grandchildren). That means cleaning once a week for bedding and once a month for toys — or more frequently if they look dirty or smell. Follow the cleaning instructions that can be found on the packaging or tag of most pet items.

Soap or detergent is effective in cleaning most pet products. Hard items like bowls or plastic toys can be cleaned in a sink or a dishwasher if labeled safe. Soft items like a blanket or plush toy can be popped in a washing machine and dryer. If you prefer, you can designate a wash tub, laundry sink or bathtub specifically for your pet.

You may also consider disinfecting items that touch urine or poop, or if your pet has been sick. First, clean and scrub with soapy water to remove dirt and most germs. Then disinfect to kill any remaining germs. CDC recommends to always read and follow instructions on the disinfectant label, keep your pets away when using disinfectants and store them securely out of reach of your pets.

Mishandled pet food

The study that resulted from these water cooler discussions included a survey of 417 dog owners, who were questioned about the hygiene practices they used in feeding their dogs. In response to questions about specific FDA-recommended safe handling and storage practices, the study found that:

  • 50 percent of dog owners wash the pet food dish with soap and hot water after each use; 12 percent wash it at least once daily
  • 13 percent wash the food scoop with soap and hot water for at least 20 seconds after each use
  • 91 percent don’t use the bowl as a scooping utensil
  • 22 percent wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds prior to handling pet food
  • 38 percent wash their hands after handling pet food
  • 30 percent store pet food in the original bag
  • 81 percent tightly cover leftover dry pet food
  • 57 percent tightly cover leftover canned pet food
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The researchers also tested 68 household dog food dishes for bacterial contamination. The households were then divided into three groups with different instructions for implementing food handling guidelines. A week later, the dishes were tested again. Bacterial contamination was significantly reduced among those who instituted the FDA’s pet food handling guidelines, either alone or in combination with the FDA’s human food handling protocols.

Less than 5 percent of the dog owners were even aware of the FDA pet food handling guidelines. Most expected to find such information elsewhere, such as on the food label (41 percent), through their veterinarian (28 percent) or at the store where they got the food (11 percent).

“Our study shows that pet owners look to their veterinarian, pet food store and pet food manufacturers for information about pet food storage and hygiene guidelines. Including recommendations at these places and in multiple formats — on the label, on handouts and on their website, for example — would be a strong start,” Luisana said.

You can find the FDA’s pet food handling and storage recommendations online. CDC’s guide to cleaning and disinfecting pet supplies is online at Healthy Pets, Healthy People.

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